Armchair Peregrinations


January 15, 1999

It's late at night, the only time it seems I can write these journal entries. It's been a very mild, partly cloudy day, almost warm. Just a short while ago I heard it rain for a few brief moments, and now it has stopped. It is very quiet, and that is what I like about this time of day. No one else but insomniacs, journal writers and Internet addicts would be up at this hour, but I do it all the time. I've had difficulty sleeping all my life so it's not at all unusual for me to be awake now. (I just made a typo and wrote "aware" now instead of awake; a telling slip and surely significant, don't you think?)

That reminds me of just why this online journal writing is so different from my print journal. I find myself writing for an audience, as just now when I made the aside, and this creates an entirely different kind of journal. As tiny as my readership is, it keeps me going with this writing. I know I should take the counter off and just write when I feel like it, but so far I can't or won't. Perhaps others share this same dilemma.

My subject for this evening's entry is, once again, travel. I have been thinking about how to compose my thoughts on the subject at this point, and I've come up with this state of affairs. It is early 1999 and five years since my last major trip across the country and more than two years since my last big travel venture of any sort (my weeklong excursion to southern Ohio). I'm missing the road very badly, but feel immersed so thoroughly in my job and graduate school here in Charleston, that it takes a colossal effort on my part to even seriously contemplate another road trip. The planning, the packing, the getting up early, the logistics, will I be feeling good? etc., etc. I'm just going to have to take a few days off, throw some things in the car, and go. My fantasy. That isn't the way I do things. It's got to be planned. At least, I have to know in general what parks, historic sites, towns and rural highways I want to see and drive along.

In anticipation of my next trip, I have been stockpiling travel guides for the past two years, including these: The Most Scenic Drives in America; See the USA the Easy Way: 136 Loop Tours to 12,000 Great Places; National Geographic's Driving Guides to America; The Smithsonian Guides to Natural America, and National Geographic's guides to America's Historic Places and America's State Parks. All excellent books which I highly recommend. Now, if I can only use them instead of doing all this book buying and "armchair peregrinating." I might mention also, that this travel guide buying also includes some very good daytrip excursion guides to South Carolina that have come out in the last couple of years, each of which offer tantalizing short trips to places near and yet so far away. If you don't get out of the house to see them, that is. Here's hoping I'll get to do some traveling soon.

January 13, 1999

There it was in yesterday's paper, in the middle of the "B" section: a follow-up story with photos on the fire that killed three homeless men in an abandoned building on King Street Saturday. The headline read "Fire puts focus on vagrancy" and the two stories contained underneath attempted to put a human face to this tragedy and offer explantions from the mayor and the director of the Crisis Ministries shelter as to why it had happened and how such a thing could be prevented in the future.

With the story was a striking photo of a memorial on the sidewalk to the men by his friends. A young woman in a black leather jacket is seated on the sidewalk in front of the burned-out building. To the left is a small hibiscus plant full of big white flowers. Three candles are lit.

Here is how one of the stories began:

When it was too cold to sleep outside, George Griffith would find warm shelter with his buddies in a vacant building at 348 King St.

But when they switched from vegetable oil to motor oil as fuel to start a fire in a bucket, Griffith knew it was time to leave the place people call "The Tree House."

Griffifth said that before sunrise Saturday, a fire in a bucket likely ignited a blaze, gutting the building and killing three homeless men.

He would have died on that cold morning, too, if he had not become weary of smelling buring motor oil all night and waking up covered in soot, he said.

The mayor met with city police, fire, code enforcement, and economic development officials to discuss what the city should do. The director of the homeless shelter, and the mayor, too, said no-one in Charleston should have to endure sleeping in abandoned buildings. But one of the homeless men said he and other avoided the shelter because it was dangerous, and they had been attacked there before. This was denied by Greg Smith, the director, who said infractions were rare, but that if someone came to the shelter late and drunk or on drugs, they were turned away. The three men had been drinking all afternoon prior to the night of the fire, according to friends of theirs.

One of the brothers of a victim, who lives in Florida, said he was not surprised by the news of his brother's death in Charleston. "If you're living on the street, anything can happen," the elder brother is quoted as saying. His younger brother was a 51-year-old, divorced, alcoholic Vietnam veteran. Another of the victims was younger, 29, and the third man was 47.

There's going to be plenty of discussion about why these supposedly boarded up buildings harbor the wandering homeless who refuse to go to the shelter. The shelter director is considering opening a separate de-tox shelter for intoxicated people to keep them off the streets at night.

This whole tragic incident was a shock to the proud and noble old historic city of Charleston which prides itself on being a progressive place which carefully preserves its architecture and way of life. Yet, there is a lot of urban blight in this town, ragged, depressed, slum-like areas that the tourists never see. And the area around Marion Square is where the homeless congregate. You can't miss them.

These deaths have forced me, and many others, I'm sure, to confront once again the fact of the homeless and poor, and mentally ill, and alcoholics among us. Not that we don't see them. But they become part of the "invisible poor." It is easy to depersonalize them and keep our psychic distance, thinking they are somehow flukes, freaks, abberations. It is easy to say they are the irresponsible castoffs of society unwilling to work or help themselves. But as Alan Paine, housing director of the Oxford House Manley at the old Navy base here said, "Once a person is homeless, they are labeled as useless, but they are people. They aren't animals. They are living, breathing human beings who need help."

January 11, 1999

As I was going to work Saturday morning I noticed that the block of King Street downtown between George and Calhoun was blocked off and closed. Fire trucks and police vehicles filled the street. I couldn't find anything on the local news sites on the Internet later that morning, so didn't think too much about it. A fire, probably, but quickly put out and no damage?

Only the next morning (I never listen to the local TV news broadcasts) did I see an AP story on the New York Times site which mentioned that three homeless men had died in a fire in downtown Charleston. Then there was the big headline in the Sunday morning paper and Internet editions of the Post and Courier. The men had been trapped while sleeping in an 1852 building, formerly a restaurant and nightclub, that had been abandoned since 1993. They died of smoke inhalation, the coroner said. The windows had been boarded up, so firefighters had great difficulty getting in. The street was engulfed in black smoke from the 4 am fire. Two of the homeless men were originally from Alabama and Georgia, or at least had relatives there, the paper reported.

The tragedy occurred in a building that was part of the lingering blight that afflicts upper King Street, that part of the street, distant by cultural and economic light years, from the trendy lower end with its Saks Fifth Avenue, Banana Republic, Gap and other tony stores and the big 5-star Charleston Place Hotel, so beloved by free-spending visitors who can afford $300 a night for a room.

A resident of one of the adjacent buildings said homeless people had been sleeping in the building for years, and the fire was a tragedy waiting to happen. No doubt this is true. It underscores a sometimes-forgotten fact about downtown Charleston, especially upper King Street: although the police have been attempting to sweep the area of homeless in the past few years, trying to get them out of the way of businesses and tourists, the problem hasn't gone away. It's just as insidious a part of the underbelly of the city as ever, perhaps more so.

And Charleston is one of the luckier cities. It has a model homeless shelter that is studied by other cities and states and which is a compassionate and highly regarded local charity with the esteemed mayor of the city on the board of directors. It offers a range of social services, in addition to meals and cots, and is shifting more and more of its emphasis toward helping the homeless find jobs and obtain housing of their own, no mean feat in a city where rents are ridiculously high, reflecting what the "market will bear" in a town riding a wave of selective prosperity. And, the shelfter newsletter reported recently, 51 percent of the residents have jobs.

It's also not surprising that a tragedy such as this occurs when one considers that the homeless retreat to these dark and unsafe abandoned buildings rather that stay in the shelters, which they maintain are unsafe, noisy and chaotic places where their big fear is being robbed of what few possessions they own. Many of them, especially in a climate as mild as Charleston's, refuse the shelters, except for meals, and live and sleep on the streets and in abandoned buildings.

I recall a feature story about one homeless man who had to stay at the shelter while he sought work after losing a job as a forklift driver. He had come to Charleston from the upper Midwest to take the job and then it was gone. He described the shelter as having caring workers and giving men such as himself an opportunity to do something to lift themselves out of their hopelessness. But in a telling, small detail, he described how each night he sprayed down his cot with Raid to try to control the lice and insects.

What a dehumanizing way to exist -- no place to call your own, no privacy, dangerous and mentally ill psychotics and alcoholics around you, and survival from day to day your major preoccupation. I believe in the Crisis Ministries shelter and social programs, and I support it. But their objective to end homelessness in Charleston is somewhat utopian, I feel. There is no solution in our present economic system where so many jobs don't come anywhere near paying a living wage. Especially in a tourism-centered, service economy like Charleston with it dead-end, low wage restaurant and hotel jobs, it is a longshot for many single, homeless people to get decent and affordable housing. Imagine a homeless family trying to get housing.

That terrible fire Saturday morning also signifies something else about the homeless. It conjures up the worst stereotypes, and reveals some of the most unsettling truths about this group of individuals the sociologists endlessly try to figure out and categorize. Do many of them really choose to live an unfettered life on the streets? Would anyone in their right mind choose such "freedom?" It might be deduced that many homeless are on the streets because of a long series of failures, illness, bad luck, or, a long history of criminal behavior and mental illness or substance abuse. Can they help themselves after a certain point is reached? Do they want to help themselves? Did they abuse their freedom since the age of consent and recklessly sqander their lives, looking for "easy" or criminal ways out of the deep-down self-loathing they felt for themselves? At what point does the situation become hopeless for an individual?

I like to think the Crisis Ministries programs provide hope and a way out. For many, they do. But for the three who died in the fire: what brought them to that abandoned building and what furies of fate, determinism or pure chance led to their terrible deaths in an abandoned building that never should have become that awful lure in the first place?

It's gone now, but some street people interviewed by the newspaper acted like it will be missed. That whatever it's condition, it was a temporary home and shelter to the misfits who could easily obtain entrance. What does this say about our society? Who is to blame?

January 9, 1999

It got warm the other day as dramatically as it had turned cold. I stepped out of the apartment to a balmy morning. It was like a different season overnight. Nice breeze, real pretty cloud formations. I was off work until 5 so decided to drive out to Folly Beach that afternoon and take some pictures, hoping the sky would stay so interesting.

A slight wind off the ocean made the beach noticeably cooler than inland, but it was refreshing, not at all cold. I walked in the opposite direction than usual, toward the east end of the island headed toward Morris Island Lighthouse. I can't recount how many occasions in the past I've been to that place, going back to 1968 when I first visited the area around which a tidal inlet meets the Atlantic across from Morris Island. Erosion control structures barely protrude from the surface, so much has the sand built up along this stretch. One of the exposed pilings makes a convenient seat now, as during those many years ago when an older structure was in place. It's here where you can see more birds than elsewhere along the beach -- gulls, pelicans, sandpipers -- darting, diving, skimming and running along the shore in search of food.

Thursday afternoon I sat awhile there and observed the sea and sky and the few people passing by who were walking up along the inlet. First, there was an older man with a walking stick and what appeared to be a border collie, or similar-appearing dog, on a short leash, harshly controlled by his owner. They slowly made their way. Next, came a college student or young man in his early 20s, I would guess, accompanied by two dogs, free from their leashes and running about joyously, as unleashed dogs as want to do at the beach. One dog was a mixed breed, graceful, fast and uninhibited in his enthusiasm for the ocean. The other was amusing to watch, by comparison -- a medium-sized poodle, well-groomed and more cautious about the whole venture than his companion. Sort of dainty in its movements, but she definitely wanted to be part of the fun. Finally, after they had all passed, a lone woman, probably in her 70s, whom I have seen taking solitary walks before, came along slowly, but not really revealing any of the infirmities of age. She was beachcombing, looking for shells and bric-a-brac. Same sort of thing I do.

I felt a certain kinship with these lone figures, even if they had dogs to keep them company. I imagine them as people who like their own company at times like these, or else, who will not be dissuaded from getting out and doing things just because another person is not available to accompany them. The solitary figure on the beach. I see myself in their company, as indeed I was that day, observing them against a backdrop of bright, blue sky, waves breaking on shore, and an endless horizon.

January 6, 1999

It is cold here at last -- very cold. I'm not used to it, and thus it always comes as a rather abrupt shock to the system, accustomed as we have been here in Charleston to a seemingly endless "Indian summer." Last night was the kind of cold you really feel, even with layers of clothes. I stepped into my car for the ride home about 8 and felt a sudden shiver as my hands gripped a cold steering wheel. I couldn't turn on the heat as it would just be cold air blowing out. I had thoughts of great sympathy and wonderment for all those northern clime folks struggling through snowbanks to free cars and wrapping up from head to toe as they ventured out in 30 below wind chill days. Everytime I look at the color weather maps, I say to myself, "How do they do it?"

Cold weather has an odd effect on us here in the Lowcountry. When it's a day that doesn't get above 35 or so, like yesterday and today, everyone at work just wants to stay in the building. No one wants to go out during lunch, say, to walk to King Street to go to one of the restaurants. "How's the weather?" I ask and the reply is invariably, "COLD...I wouldn't go out if you don't have to." To which I reply, "Even to walk just a few blocks to the deli?" This must seem very amusing to Wisconsonites or Michiganders, but we just don't like real cold weather down here. Seems to disrupt the natural order of things. We're used to very mild winters, not as mile as New Orleans, but mild. However, it's turning out to be a rather nastily cold winter. Worst blizzard in 30 years in Chicago, I saw on the news.

I can take hot weather, but cold weather makes me nervous. I don't like to be out on country roads during real cold weather, especially at night. It seems more threatening than hot weather, more primal and unnatural, as if the human species, which emerged from the savannahs of Africa those many millennia ago, was not meant to be all wrapped up and struggling against the elements. Our ingenuity and cleverness have allowed us to live just about anywhere, but there's always some price to be paid.

The cold weather here, though, I must confess, has been bracing and invigorating. I want to breathe in the air. Right now, also, it's still a bit of a novelty. We don't get hard freezes here but once or twice a winter, if that much. So when we had a record cold 17 degrees at the airport last night, we know it was cold. It'll pass, though. About mid February and on into March, we starting seeing some of the most perfect and comfortable temperatures imaginable to be out in. The horse-drawn carriages will be filled once again as they tour the old streets of the historic district, and the first daffodils will be coming up as well as a few premature azalea blooms. The days are growing slightly longer each day, and winter will soon lose its grip on us, psychologically at least.>p>

January 5, 1999

It finally did clear up yesterday, although quite reluctantly at first. The heavy overcast parted and bands of blue sky appeared. By about 2 pm it was perfectly clear and sunny. A weariness has come over me about that time. I just felt kind of bad and didn't have much energy for doing anything. Was lying in bed knowing I had to be at Drayton Hall by 3 or the gates would be locked and I couldn't get in. With a sudden show of resolve, I lurched out of bed, grabbed my camera and coat and headed out the door for the 40-minute drive to a place on the Ashley River above Charleston that is a splendid scenic refuge where I can get away from it all for awhile. The old plantation house Drayton Hall is one of the finest remaining examples of Georgian Palladian architecture. It is studied by architects and marveled at by visitors who tour the house, unfurnished and bare to reveal all its elegant proportions.

I always go there to walk the grounds and take a short nature hike around the marsh trail. There I can traverse a loop that takes me alongside a section of the Ashley River and on into the marsh and a section of maritime forest that enables me to feel like I'm further out in the country than I really am. It's still practically in Charleston, but I just like the outdoors feeling it give me.

A 21-mile segment of the Ashley River has just recently been designated the state's sixth Scenic River. It is a beautiful Lowcountry river, so full of history and lore, and so intimately associated with Charleston. The original settlement at Charles Town in 1670 was located on the banks of the Ashley about 7 miles upriver from the peninsular formed by the meeting of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers where it eventually established itself as present-day Charleston. Yesterday, I sat awhile on a picnic bench right by the river and enjoyed a brisk winter breeze as I gazed over to the Spartina grass and marsh on the opposite bank. I was lost in reverie for awhile. I felt really good to relax completely and look at the river which was then being tidally pulled toward the nearby Atlantic Ocean.

I left that spot only reluctantly as it was getting late and I had to be going. I took some photographs and tarried a bit longer in that special place.

January 3, 1998

WINTER

Afternoon

Winter moods etched in trees now bare;
Alone in the sky, branches reach toward
Clean blue day,
But it isn't there.


Night

Storm clouds, thunder, humid wind and rain
Moistening the night in springlike warmth;
I step out on a wet porch;
It's very quiet.
The cat is rocking in the chair.


Morning

The rain has ceased, the wind is weak;
I cannot see the world afresh.
I thought it would be
As I peered out my window at the oak tree.
No clear, cold bracing world of wind-driven clarity,
Just a waiting time,
Watching skies for signs of parting clouds;
Calm before the cold.
Gray ambivalence since dawn.

January 1, 1999

It seems strange writing this first journal entry of 1999, but here I am, continuing on as if nothing too momentous has occurred. Of course New Year's Day is, at least symbolically, the time of new beginnings, time to wipe the old year's slate clean and begin anew. Wipe away the old appetites, temptations, neuroses, fears and insecurities and look ahead. If it were only that simple. Sometimes when I think back on all the bad job experiences I've had in the past, it's easy to overlook the overwhelming evidence of the positive in each of them, primarily the wonderful people I've been blessed to have worked with. So, I can feel good about this and remember with gratitude the many work friendships over the years.

Also, in this year before the millennium, I'm more aware than ever of the passage of time, the fact that I really am getting older. This forces you, whether you like it or not, to think about how you are living your life and what you want to make of the years you have left. Mortality weighs heavily on me now as I approach 50. In my 20s and 30s I just never really worried much about my health or how long I was going to live. I worried about many other things, but mercifully, not that. Now, regrettably, I'm only too keenly aware of every fattening fried shrimp platter with French fries and hush puppies that I eat, such as the one I just a short while ago enjoyed with such guilty pleasure. I have a pint of Ben and Jerry's chocolate Brownie ice cream in the freezer. Do I make short work of this delectable treat? Nooo! I stretch it out to 10 or more servings, rationing what's bad for me but which tastes so delicious. I know it's a fool's game, but I keep on fooling myself nevertheless.

This year I will be struggling with some things as never before. Confronting them won't necessarily make them go away, but eventually it may. At the same time, I want so much to make progress toward attaining that interior peace of mind I long for. That stage of life, emotional and spiritual, where I am more at peace with myself than at war. I try to envision a time in the near future when I don't have to run as hard from that pursuing "Hound of Heaven." I'm aware of my free will and I want to use it to make decisions that are concordant with the will of God in my life. Not rationalizing, drifting on every current of loneliness and depression that starts carrying me along. Not continuing to make those same old excuses about putting off the matters of the spirit, but settling down at last and refusing to give in to the usual, and even comfortable, self-deceptions that have been my dogged companion in life.

So, you can easily ascertain, it has not been the most pleasant day for me. Something about the first day of the new year. I'm supposed to be optimistic and have resolutions for self-improvement ready to go in 1999.

Walking along a very briskly cool, but not too cold, winter beach this afternoon, I pondered some gloomy thoughts initially, but the salt air was so fresh, and the low-tide beach so perfect for walking, that I felt myself once again relaxing, calming down and listening to the waves coming ashore. I was bundled up good and the air felt just right. There were a lot of people out this New Year's Day, so it wasn't a lonely sweep of beach, as it often is this time of year, and which I didn't need today. I returned to Charleston and walked down King Street, looking in shop windows and then ran a couple of more errands before coming home.

Now the brief hours of sunlight are gone, and I feel their loss, but it's time to settle in for a night of reading and listening to classical music. Tomorrow I plan a day trip out to the ACE Basin. That should really be nice.


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